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Underdevelopment and the origins of Pura Vida

by Garland M Baker on August 31, 2009

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “If you are thinking one year ahead, sow seeds. If you are thinking 10 years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate your children.”

This proverb gives light into how much planning goes into Chinese culture. Therefore, if the Chinese think 100 years in advance – reflected in their progressive and hard-working culture – could it be assumed that Europeans think 70 years in advance and Americans 50, according to their progressive history?

And what could be said about our fellow Costa Ricans? An observer of the culture might conclude that Costa Ricans think no farther than their noses. Does that have something to do with why many Hispanic nations keep falling behind global progress? Yes, in fact, it has everything to do with it, and Ticos are definitely not the exception.

From their education or personal expenses to huge white-collar fraud in high governmental positions – including the presidency – Ticos are a vivid example of the Latin short-sight attitude towards life, and who better than President Óscar Arias Sánchez to confirm it?

As he said in his speech for the 5th Summit of the Americas, held this April in Trinidad and Tobago, “No one is to blame except for us.”

So, what exactly is this short-sight attitude? What are its cultural ramifications that extend to this and other Latin American countries?

Unfortunately, the lack of identity or real political struggle for Costa Ricans has made them believe that life is just a comfortable couch where they tune in to passively admire the successes of other countries through their imported TV sets.

According to history books, Costa Rica picked up the pieces after Colonial times and built what they could to show the world they were a dignified country. The only way they thought possible to achieve a decent country status was by importing arts and embellishing San José with the latest architectural and artistic trends, condensed in the buildings of the Teatro Nacional and the Correo Nacional. They thought that those foreign helpers were going to jumpstart the country into building its own identity. They never imagined that instead, they stripped the country from ever having a true solid identity for exactly that: for expecting everything to come from the outside instead of building from the inside.

They thought that with what was left after colonialism, the country could not build itself: It had to be built and defined by the developed nations of the time. Sadly, that way of thinking still shapes Costa Rica’s reality. The country was first rescued by Europe, then the United States (who continues to do it), then by Taiwan, and now by China. Who’s next? Saudi Arabia?

Costa Rican leaders have hidden behind the sad Third World Face for decades to happily receive billions of dollars and distribute them among top government officials. No wonder there have been at least three presidents linked to major fraud. One is on trial for fraud right now, and another stayed in Switzerland.

Despite major fraud and corruption, Costa Rica’s political climate has enjoyed stability since it was established, and its monopoly system has created a seemingly comfortable bubble for the population, instituting soccer and alcohol as the official pacifiers that keep citizens in their seats at work and at home, thinking what the government tells them to, and feeling content with what they do not have.

Ironically, that complacent attitude has shaped Costa Ricans into mediocre achievers. Ticos are accustomed to have foreign nations think for them, invent for them, sweat for everything while they wait until it is available in stores. That is where the Pura Vida concept comes to verbalize Costa Rican identity.

Ticos have a Pura Vida mentality: Do the least and expect the most, take the shortest shortcut and feel proud, think of the most comfortable decision for the time being.

The average Costa Rican male grows up sheltered in their household, where his mom serves as maid, janitor, assistant and what not, and she pampers him until he get off the couch and gets married. The average Costa Rican female grows up to take care of a family that perpetuates the vicious cycle of contentment. Very few Ticos learn the concept of independence, resilience and persevering. They are used to running to Mommy crying and have her put out their fires.

Very few Ticos learn the value of labor because their over-protective mothers convince them they do not need it until they grow up. Naturally, they do not learn to secure their future since they have always had someone taking care of them.

Ticos are never taught the value of schooling either. Culturally, school is seen as an obligatory burden, not as a privilege, and cheating on tests is something to feel proud of. Some college students barely pass subjects because they are just following a life recipe, not their own passion. In fact, very few Costa Ricans are passionately devoted to their profession. Most are only passionate at the soccer stadium.

Therefore, what can you expect from a society that produces and pampers underachievers? You expect people who cannot manage time, money or energy, people who are always waiting for the perfect shortcut to present itself and people who justify everything to keep denying and enjoying their incompetence.

For example, mechanics who overcharge for taking good parts from cars instead of fixing them think they are doing good business for themselves because of how that particular situation helped them financially. The same goes for lawyers who only take lucrative cases, never return phone calls and treat clients condescendingly, and for dentists who do not upgrade their equipment because they think clients will never demand it. These professionals do not think of themselves as thieves or bad service providers, nor do they think of their clients as apple trees. They only think of clients as apples.

Ticos have no worries in their minds other than what is going on at the moment: who they like or not, what handy distractions can serve as excuses to not work, study or worry about their lives, what they want or need to buy for their current needs or trends, or what they want for their next meal. Many quit jobs impulsively the minute they dislike them without having something better lined up, even when having a family to support. Why? Because they know they can always go back to mommy’s house and she will help them. Most of them do not think of how striving through difficult liaisons can serve as bridges to improve their future, how managing money wisely can get them out of debt, or how staying in a job that they may not like until they find something better can strengthen their resume and keep them afloat financially.

Costa Ricans are not usually concerned with planning for when they are up in age either, and very few of them purchase graves or worry about making wills and having things in order if they suddenly pass away.

Therefore, why has this short-sight attitude spread through Latin America? Is it a legacy of colonialism? Not only have Hispanic nations been responsible for falling off the progress wagon, they have prostituted themselves to powerful countries while blaming them for their own lack of development.

Arias lists several reasons for Latin America’s permanent Third-World status.

“Firstly, we only have seven years of schooling, …[we] don’t [raise taxes for] the richest people in our countries, … we don’t spend enough to keep our people healthy, … we don’t build the necessary infrastructure, the roads, the ports, the airports; … we don’t devote the necessary resources to stop the degradation of the environment … it is inequality [what] really shames us, is the product, among other things, of course, [of] not educating our sons and daughters.”

Arias could not have said it better: “the 21st century is the Asian century, not the Latin American century,… [and] we should not wait [too long] to make the changes that we have to make.”

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